NI Protocol here to stay, O’Neill says as she calls for formation of Executive

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The Northern Ireland Protocol is “here to stay”, Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill has insisted as she again called on the DUP to join an Executive at Stormont.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has pressed the UK Government for “decisive action” over the post-Brexit treaty before he will nominate ministers for a new Stormont Executive.

The leaders of Northern Ireland’s two largest political parties have reacted amid speculation that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss could move to start scrapping parts of the protocol from as soon as next week.

Ms O’Neill spoke to the media following a visit to the Ulster Hospital, where she said staff there were going “above and beyond”.

She added: “This highlights again why we need to have a functioning Executive, why we need to be in there, why we need to have stewardship of the health department and how all of us in political leadership need to work together to do what needs to be done to fix our health service.

“The health service staff are crying out for that help and support. They need that political leadership and I want all of the parties sitting round the Executive table to do that.”

She added: “I did speak to Boris Johnson and I made it very clear to him that his pandering to the DUP and the dialling up of rhetoric serves no purpose to provide the certainty and stability that people here want to see. This action of the British Government today in cahoots with the DUP punishes the people here.

“When I spoke to Boris Johnson I made it very clear that they need to stop playing a game of chicken.

State Opening of Parliament
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson talking to the media on College Green, London, following the State Opening of Parliament (James Manning/PA)

“They are using the people here in the north as a pawn in their power play with the European Union.

“Honesty needs to be brought to the conversation, the protocol is here to stay. Are there ways to smooth its implementation? Yes there are. Are we up for that? Yes.

“But that Executive in Stormont needs to be sitting every day, it needs to be putting money into people’s pockets, it needs to be fixing our health service and let’s work together.

“The approach of the British Government in pandering to the DUP’s nonsense is not going to wash and it isn’t working for the people here.”

But Sir Jeffrey said that “words in themselves will not fix this problem” after the Government stopped short of pledging to take action on the protocol in the Queen’s Speech.

Sir Jeffrey told reporters in London that he is committed to leading the DUP into political institutions at Stormont.

But he added: “I’m also very clear we need to resolve the issues here in terms of the protocol and I will be making my position clear on that before the end of this week.”

Asked if he would stay on as an MP or take up his mandate to be an MLA, Sir Jeffrey said: “In the short term a choice has to be made on that. I will come to a decision with my colleagues.”

Sir Jeffrey also said he was not “setting a timeframe” for action on the protocol.

He said he had reached out to the EU and was hoping to meet the EU ambassador to “receive an update from them”.

“In the absence of agreement with the EU, then the UK Government, I think, must act to safeguard the political institutions in Northern Ireland; to safeguard the political process. That has to be the Prime Minister’s priority,” he told reporters.

“To be honest I’ve given the EU months and months and months, we’ve had interminable negotiations, but we haven’t had results, we haven’t had outcomes, we haven’t had decisive action in those negotiations, and that’s what we need.”

Following the historic election result at the weekend, Sinn Fein is now the largest party at Stormont and entitled to nominate the first nationalist or republican First Minister.

However, the DUP must nominate a deputy First Minister to serve alongside in the joint office.

Sir Jeffrey said that, during his call with the Prime Minister, he “reiterated our position that we cannot nominate to an Executive until decisive action is taken on the protocol”.

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